I stepped down as Vanderbilt University’s eighth chancellor in 2019 after 11 years on the job. I’ve left it to others to judge my service in that position. But when I retired, members of the university’s board and other people said very kind things about me and honored me in ways for which I am truly grateful. A generous alumni family endowed a Zeppos scholars program. A new residential college was named Nicholas S. Zeppos College. I was pleased and proud, and while I knew not to get too full of myself, the university was certainly getting its fill of me.
I’ve returned to the faculty now, and I often wander past the buildings that bear the names of former chancellors, each and all a part of the history of the institution as it approaches its sesquicentennial. At the same time, however, I realize that not many people notice those names or even know whom the buildings are named after, Zeppos College included. And that’s probably how it should be. A university should be a vibrant place for research, discovery and learning focused on the future. It shouldn’t be a museum of the past or a mausoleum.
So when it comes to being honored as a retiring university leader, a good dose of humility and sense of perspective is essential. And because it is a university, we should expect some cynicism to creep in. Many people may see such parting honors as simply business as usual for the institution and the person moving on. The cynic will say, “Yes, the chancellor retired, and they did what they do when a chancellor retires.”
Yet, as it turns out, I garnered much more than the somewhat traditional accolades as I retired from the leadership of Vanderbilt. Around that same time, I received a FedEx package at my home. I looked at the return address, and it said “James Patterson.” Yes, that James Patterson — the guy who has sold more books than just about anyone and who writes page-turners with President Bill Clinton. Over the years, Jim, who has a graduate degree from Vanderbilt, and his spouse, Sue (with whom I share an alma mater), have become my very good friends. I love everything Jim writes, including his and Sue’s wonderful children’s books. And if there really were a “most interesting man in the world,” it would be Jim Patterson.
I opened up the envelope and found a short, warm note from Jim attached to the first 10 draft pages for his next book with President Clinton, The President’s Daughter. I started reading with some trepidation, and no sooner than the very first paragraph, there “I” was: Navy SEAL Nick Zeppos, leading SEAL Team Six on a secret mission “[in the] Gulf of Sidra, off the coast of Libya.”
I was stunned and immediately had two thoughts: first, how kind of Jim, and second, when will I get killed off?
Still, whatever might happen later in the book, there I was, on the first page of a Jim Patterson novel that I knew millions of people would read. It was the best and most touching retirement gift I could have imagined, especially coming from a close friend. I thought, “Now, that’s really special. Sure, I drive by the eponymous Zeppos College regularly, and I am truly in awe of the Zeppos scholars. But how many college chancellors or presidents get to be a character in a James Patterson novel?”
This spring, I traveled to visit Jim and Sue. As we often do, we went golfing together, and as we walked down the second fairway, Jim turned to me and said in his dry way, “You are going to be really happy when the book comes out.” I smiled at him and said, “Jim, I’ve been too nervous to ask you about it. I’ve kept worrying that I was knocked off by page 20. In fact, I’ve been reading the obituaries to see if I died in the Gulf of Sidra operation!” He gave me a wry smile.
The book came out this summer, and it jumped to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Happily for me, SEAL Team Six leader Nick Zeppos not only served successfully on that first mission in the Gulf of Sidra, but my assignments didn’t stop there. Ultimately, the U.S. president himself asked me to undertake a far more perilous rogue mission, leading to the climax of the book. You’ll have to read it to see how I end up.
My many friends who have read it are really giving me the needle. “I misread you as a professorial type,” they’ll say. “I didn’t know you were a Navy SEAL!” I smile and regale them about the mission that Jim sent me on.
Jim’s retirement gift keeps me smiling and gives me a perspective on many things. When I become too proud of Zeppos College towering over the campus, I think of the last lines of one of my favorite poems, Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Will I be a modern-day Ozymandias, a vainglorious college chancellor whose temple will ultimately turn to dust? I’ve consoled myself with the knowledge that Vanderbilt tends to be well run and stewarded, and those in charge will not allow deferred maintenance to build up. So the odds are good that the building will remain intact well into the future.
But meanwhile, I’ve imagined an even more likely outcome over both the short and long term. Next year and in those following, one of our student guides will point and announce on the college tour, “And this is Nicholas S. Zeppos College.” And a voice from the crowd will call out, “How cool — you named it after the guy on SEAL Team Six.”